Fillip 2 — Winter 2006

The Number One Galleries in the Number One City
Seamus Kealy

Vancouver’s meteorological climate is not always an inviting feature, being notoriously grim in the winter months. Yet, it was still voted the best place to live this year, and has scored high in recent years. The city must then offer, presumably, a vivid cultural climate. One sees instead Vancouver’s public events marinating in killjoy policies originating from the archaic morals of the city’s forefathers. Recently, a parade of people dressed as zombies dominated the downtown area, mirroring the city’s fusty social gatherings—unless one is up for yang drinking culture. There must be something going on. For one, Vancouver is the city of TV culture. Film crews abound, such as that for the hit series Battlestar Galactica, a remake of the 1970s sci-fi show, apropos for this city which had its urban centre gutted in the 1970s to make way for the spaceship malls and high-end hotels of big business.

The film industry has produced an odd mix of working class, petit bourgeois, and petite célèbre aspirations, held together by the fibre of dream factory glamour. Photographs in local dailies and magazines show exclusive social events where film types—mingling with the casually dressed, phlegmatic ultra-rich—flash their eyes and teeth into the camera for the glory of the page, not the dreadfully dull moment itself. In the bars, every second hipster works in the film industry—or at least states that they do. Vancouver is about this motion-picture-making. Everyone is involved. Even the cyclist interrupted by a film set on her journey around the seawall or the homeless fellow imagined to be cast as an extra in Davinci’s Inquest.

Away from downtown and its celluloid, on the other side of this city of glass, up and down south Granville Street, are the prominent commercial galleries, the (often aspiring) profitmakers of Vancouver Hochkultur. This art circle, so to speak, shifted from downtown sources—such as the Beatty Street office of Intermedia or the New Era Social Club on Powell Street in the early 1970s—first to a scattering of artist-run centres throughout the city and then to this collection of galleries along Granville. One must also mention the recent increase in independent, alternative arts spaces outside of the government subsidized artist-run centres, to the east of Granville. These spaces are, undoubtedly, a reaction to the fashion-driven gated community of commercial galleries; that is, the “money” thing.

Commercial galleries, like all things, have their best moments. It would be unfair to claim that a stroll along Granville Street to view the city’s galleries would sum up the city’s grey zeitgeist. However, given that Vancouver was just named the best place in the world to live by The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2005 liveability survey, one can get a glimpse of what it is that the best people in the world are collecting. One can perhaps also understand why it is that young artists are simply not very interested in these galleries—except maybe for a free glass of wine—and are forming their own spaces for production and exhibition. Up and down Granville Street, barrel-chested buyers with horn-rimmed glasses are snapping up schlocky art. Now that the British Columbia premier has boosted the economy by ensuring that the stupidly wealthy are richer, the galleries may have the opportunity to reap a harvest. That is, yes, the best people in the world are buying art, but do they know what they’re buying? And then again, do these galleries know what they’re selling?

Two examples may suffice. The Bau-Xi Gallery, at the time of this writing, is hosting a series of paintings by Brent Boechler. On the canvases, primary colours are meshed together as quickly done abstract renderings emerging from euphoric light sources. These pictures typify all that is regressive about most abstract painting, part of an international aesthetic of cynicism, disinterest, and creative fatigue. And just as they would suit her living room, the pictures are a reminder of how Minimal art was perverted by the likes of Martha Stewart as interior decorating for immense profit. Boechler’s slick, pedestrian painting simply follows suit. One is also reminded of quashed art school ideals, under the foot of bottom line common sense and nouveau riche taste. All that is wrong about this culture can be found in a bad abstract painting. It is an annulment of the idea of reflection between burgeoning artists—especially art school graduates, which the city produces hundreds of yearly—and the gallery setting.

Upstairs at Bau-Xi, one can find a second example in Tom Burrows, whose subject matter of lament retains the designer room lackadaisicalness of Boechler’s work with his luminous blue “Filangiere” polymer resin picture. Long abandoned are the 1970s ideals his work had espoused. Perhaps Burrows is signalling his own attempt at what Jeff Wall identified as an aesthetic of defeatism, constructed carefully so as to open up an idea of a small window of hope. The adversarial positions, if there ever were so many in the commercial scene, have faded to an embarrassed whisper. Then again, can one have such expectations towards what is shown in commercial galleries? The “it’s not too late for humanity” struggle—once countered by Greenpeace (now distrusted in its birthplace) or the complex academic critique from afar (although produced locally) by Wall—has been reified into coy references and pixels.

A few blocks north and around a corner, next to the State Gallery (in install), is the Douglas Udell Gallery, more infamous for its ribald owner than its Gerhard Richters and Marcel Dzamas. Again, at the time of writing, the gallery is showcasing pretty paintings by William Wood (not the critic) and Joe Fafard’s gnarly, prairie sculptures. Business is clearly dictated by its clientele. When Richter or Dzama pictures are brought into the whirl of this kind of business, the ephemeral nature of contemporary art becomes all the more apparent.

The exceptions enforce the rules. And even on Granville Street there are exemptions to this rule of meretriciousness and unkind mediocrity. The dark horses are not always easily glimpsed in the drizzly monotony. But as the area’s hopefuls, they have gained a reputation and have stacked up their stables carefully, sometimes generously. Catriona Jeffries Gallery is an obvious choice with pivotal shows by Brian Jungen and Geoffrey Farmer. Then there is the smaller, sometimes riskier, Tracey Lawrence Gallery, representing clever talent such as Tim Lee and Euan MacDonald. Currently on view is something appearing effortless and bleak, bordering on blasé. Jeremy Shaw’s Anti-Psych consists of frames of inked black, computer-paper-like sheets, resembling Agnes Martin pictures in negative and mimicking sheets of LSD. The show suits Vancouver well: a languid concept precisely executed, looking good in its singularity. Then again, the exhibition begs not to be neglected. At once a dismissive sigh and then a curiosity for the show’s small splinter of questions about the vanquishing of drug-induced creativity to the clinical categories of conceptual art, Anti-Psych cannot suggest some sort of merging of the two. But the question lingers.

Sketching on, back to Granville Street, nearly next door to Equinox Gallery (which represents key Vancouver painters Etienne Zack and veteran Gordon Smith), is Monte Clark Gallery. Clark, who hosts three generations of photographers including Roy Arden, Howard Ursuliak, and Karin Bubaš, has a schedule that hits solidly or benignly misses. For its current group show, a photograph from Scott McFarland’s luscious, tightly focused Empire series—his use of botanical subjects as metaphor for contemporary living is seductively cruel—welcomes the viewer into the space, which features the above-mentioned artists as well as Rodney Graham, Holger Kalberg, Mark Lewis, Ed Ruscha, and Garry Winogrand. Arden’s Caribbean Festival Vancouver (1990), weaves sly social critique into elegant picture-making: suburban North Vancouver houses peak out from behind trees which vibrantly frame a gathering of mostly African and Caribbean-Canadians in a small park not quite outside of the municipal confines of a Presbyterian-dominated culture. Their fluorescent garbs flash against sombre greens and the ashen Vancouver sky, a clash of vivid hopefuls and the menace of Vancouver’s stale reply to its ongoing, generic urban development. The picture calls against the institutional assertion of multiculturalism; this idea is a ruse veiling the necessity of mainstream and boardroom-table hegemony for Vancouver to be what it is dreamed to be.

The Associated Press photograph for Vancouver’s top city nomination shows Paul Martin next to a moustached Mountie, toasting journalists with a glass of wine. Martin’s “oh shucks” grimace betrays some hesitation, perhaps even guilt. Maybe it’s my imagination here, but Martin doesn’t really seem to believe that Canada’s Terminal City should have made the grade. One glance at the corner of Main and Hastings would cast any voter’s ballot into the Pacific. To the south, permutations of urban culture problematics appear along Granville gallery row, sometimes as critique, more often as accomplices.

Image: Scott McFarland, Empire (2005), inkjet print, 66 x 76.2cm. Courtesy of Monte Clark Gallery, Vancouver

About the Author

Seamus Kealy is an artist, writer, and independent curator. He has exhibited in Canada, Austria, Italy, and Chile, and writes regularly for Canadian Art and Flash Art. His most recent curatorial project is Unterspiel, an exhibition of four artists/artist groups from Vienna, held at Vancouver’s Contemporary Art Gallery in 2005.

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